Staunch Characters: "Grey Gardens"

Though I was leery at first, I am now officially excited to see one of my favorite documentaries of all time as a feature film: Grey Gardens, starring Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore (airing April 18 on HBO). I was worried over Barrymore's admittedly tough task in depicting the famed Little Edie Beale, but after watching the film's trailer I'm hoping she will get it right. I'm rooting for her. If she fails, there's always the documentary to fall back on, which I'm writing about here. Nothing can compare to the real deal Beales. With that, remember to watch the documentary that started it all.

Originally released in 1975, Grey Gardens is an extraordinary, still-relevant and influential work of cinéma vérité by documentary auteurs Albert and David Maysles. The brothers worked together in the documentary genre--or "direct cinema," as they preferred to call it--from 1957 until David's death in 1987; their previous films include Salesman (1969), the heartbreaking precursor to Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross, and Gimme Shelter (1970), the Rolling Stones' dark antidote (if antidote is the correct word) to Woodstock. Though controversial for their earlier work (a man is stabbed to death by a Hells Angel in Gimme Shelter), they received their most damning criticism for Grey Gardens. Accused of both voyeurism and tabloid-style exploitation of aging women, the brothers pushed the limits of vérité to a bizarre yet recognizably human level. By revealing the intimate power struggle between an artistic mother and her flamboyant daughter, the filmmakers created an unflinching portrait of disturbing power, heightened by the viewer's flinching recognition: Almost everyone has a family, and almost no one's is functional.

But there is an odd, old world beauty in this dysfunction, something that attracts viewers like myself time and time again. I've lost count as to how many times I've watched this film since acquiring a screener years back and every-time I turn it on, I'm riveted by women who have now become like documentary friends. In spite of and honestly, because of their problems, I love them. And If you're a fan, it's nearly impossible to not love these very non-grey subjects, Edith and Edie Beale, daughters of American aristocracy, aunt and cousin to Jackie Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, and exotic birds of a paradise lost--two real-life Daisy Buchanan's gone Baby Jane Hudson.

The movie loosely tells the tale of Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter "Little Edie" (who died in 2002), a pair of misfits who lived for decades at Grey Gardens in East Hampton, Long Island. Beginning with newspaper headlines screaming about the estate's unsanitary condition and its condemnation by the Suffolk County Health Department (The New York Post stated that the two were "living in a garbage-ridden, filthy 28-room house with 8 cats, fleas, cobwebs and no running water"), the movie indulges the viewer with the offbeat and spellbinding lives of mother and daughter Beale.

At the helm is Little Edie, who, in her independent, alluring, chatty and creative way, leads the filmmakers through the disordered, spoiled and tangled corridors of their house and minds. Dressed in an assortment of daring ensembles ranging from a bathing suit worn with fishnet stockings and white high heels to towels, curtains and tablecloths (usually topped by an heirloom brooch), Edie is never without a turban and a dramatic gesture, look or utterance. Once a ravishing beauty--truly she was, like a blue-blood Marilyn Monroe--with a sharp wit, Edie mysteriously left a promising career as a dancer, model and actress to live with her aging mother. Despite her insistence that she is "losing her figure," she is still attractive, regardless of the camera's unflattering angles.

The same holds true for Big Edie, who in her youth looked much like Uma Thurman. The sister of "Black Jack" Bouvier (Jackie's father) and former wife of Wall Street lawyer Phelan Beale, Big Edie was the black sheep. Once at Grey Gardens, she was free to pursue the pastimes that brought her great joy and a bohemian reputation: singing, playing the piano and hanging out with her artistic, mostly male friends. Less eager to be filmed than her dramatic daughter, she is all at once a shrew, a formidable intellect and an artist who appears enraptured when she sings in a trembly 79-year-old voice.

Both women's distinct personalities fill the picture with a sublime mixture of looniness, camp and genuine intelligence. These women may hermit themselves in their estate, resting on dirty twin beds while listening to Norman Vincent Peale's radio exaltations of  "positive thinking," but they are in their own Miss Havisham way -- independent--even if relying on one another so much. Though the Maysles refrain from using standard techniques of documentary narration, the mother-and-daughter interaction itself illustrates the Beales' simultaneously tumultuous and stagnant life. The two women live in aristocratic squalor, eating liver pâté, ice cream and crackers; singing, dancing and bickering in their bedroom; and feeding Wonder Bread and Cat Chow to the raccoons living in their attic. And they are frequently witty--enough so that much of their banter would do Tennessee Williams proud.

Big Edie, having lived alone for 30 years, considers herself an independent spirit: "I had my cake, loved it, masticated it, chewed it and had everything I wanted." When Little Edie accuses her mother of being anti-Catholic, Big Edie exclaims: "What the hell, I worship the Catholic church!" And when a cat is spied crouching next to a beautiful old painting of Big Edie, she says amused: "Oh look, the cat's going to the bathroom on my portrait...I'm glad someone's doing something he wanted to do."As hilarious as much of the women's rapport is, it is also tinged by a bitter, sometimes wistful pain. "I missed out on everything," moans Little Edie. "I was stuck here." Laughing, her mother says, "You're never gonna get out of here."

Though their connection is certainly entertaining, it also a potent, poignant example of  a love-hate relationship built on fear, ferociousness and a shared desire to really, remove themselves from the harsh world. And who can blame them? The Maysles brothers capture their bond expertly, and the viewer cannot turn away. Like many great dramas, it's a magnification of of our own strained bonds, it speaks to those of us who have chosen a less traditional path in life and it's strangely comforting--these gals may be old but they're certainly not over. And they're anything but boring.

Is the film cruel or simply truthful? Both the Maysles and the Beales thought the latter, and both "staunch characters" staunchly defended the film. Those who leave this film thinking of the Beales as mere freaks are missing Grey Gardens' major questions: What is healthy? What is wealth and breeding? What is normal? What kind of life should you lead? And is there a type of beauty in veering off course? At the end of Grey Gardens one may echo Little Edie misquoting Robert Frost: "Two roads converged in yellow wood. Pondering one, I took the other... Isn't that beautiful?"

I love Edie so...

Read more Kim Morgan at Sunset Gun and her photo and video page, Pretty Poison.